Ulysse Collin Les Pierrieres Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Champagne
Olivier Collin is the pioneering son of the Ulysse Collin family winery in the village of Congy, 15 miles south of Epernay in the Coteaux du Petit Morin. The family has been growing grapes in this tiny, rural zone just southwest of the Côte des Blancs since 1812. They had always sold their fruit and by 1987 had rented the entirety of their 8.7 hectares to a large Champagne house, an arrangement that continued through the late 1990’s. Enter Olivier, who got a law degree, followed by an oenology degree in Bordeaux, during which time he interned for several months with Anselm Selosse. Intent upon liberating his family’s vineyard from the négoce grasp and inspired by Selosse’s purely terroir-focused approach, Olivier managed to get back the first 4.5 ha. in 2003, with the remaining 4.2 ha. to follow in 2005. Olivier’s first vintage in bottle was 2004, a single wine from a chalky 1.2-hectare plot of Chardonnay called Pierriéres. That first vintage set the course that remains the estate’s signature today: exclusively single-site wines—five of them, from four different lieux-dit—from thoughtfully farmed fruit, fermented with native yeasts and little sulfur, aged at length in barrel and bottle, and finished with a scant dosage and lower pressure than most.
The farming at Ulysse Collin cannot be neatly labeled and has evolved with Olivier’s experience. Above all, he believes that soil health is the starting point for making the best terroir-forward wines. His first purchase was a tractor, working soil health being the true core of his viticulture. The soils had been stripped of microbial life by decades of chemical farming. He stopped the use of fertilizers and herbicides and started working the soils and using organic compost. He treats oidium with sulfur but won’t treat mildew with copper, though it is technically “organic”, due to what he considers a highly toxic effect on soil health, and instead uses a synthetic anti-mildew product judiciously. Yields are moderate and harvest is by hand at high ripeness, relative to the norm in Champagne. The vines are massale selections of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with no Pinot Meunier in the mix, which may seem unusual in light of Meunier being the most-planted grape in the Coteaux du Morin’s typically heavy clay soils. But notably, certain segments of Collin's vines have a high proportion of chalk, as well as a rare black flint or silex. Of his four sites—Maillons, Pierrières, Roises and Enfers—Maillons on the border of the Côte de Sézanne is the closest to this higher-clay profile and is all Pinot Noir, while the other three, in the north of Morin in Congy, have a high limestone content and are thus conducive to Chardonnay.
The cellar work is straightforward and traditional, with an emphasis from the start on minimal manipulation and barrel aging. There is an old manual press that requires high ripeness of fruit, as well as many hands on deck. Many producers use only the first-press juice but at Ulysse Collin the second-press or taille is vinified and aged separately, to be blended in a year or more later--Olivier values its robust, richly textured character. Fermentations are low and slow, spontaneous, in wood and with a moderate dose of sulfur, the only one applied. Aging is in mainly-used barriques and foudres, with 20-40% of each vintage kept back and aged longer as reserve wine. The base wines are aged for a lengthy two years before blending and bottling. The bottles are aged sur lattes for an extended period: three years for the Pierrières and Maillons white and rosé and four years for Roises and the newer Enfers. Each is disgorged two times per year; finished with a minimal dosage, generally under 2 grams/liter; and bottled under fewer atmospheres of pressure than is standard.
Olivier’s production is small and his approach particular, reflective of his fierce commitment to terroir expression. All of his choices are the ones he feels interfere the least with the nature of each site. The resulting wines are unapologetically powerful, full-bodied and complex--always interesting and sometimes challenging in their youth, calling for, ideally, time and air to reveal themselves fully. His advocacy of place above all else extends beyond his own vines to the whole 18-village Coteaux du Petit Morin, which he finds to have been unjustly historically lumped in with its neighbor to the south, the Côte de Sézanne. He is a persistent and vocal champion of his own and his area’s potential for top-quality, expressive wines.